Between the Lives by Jessica Shirvington

Published: 1 May 2013 (print)/1st May 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Macmillan Australia/Naxos Audio
Pages: 336/8 hrs and 5 mins
Narrator: Matilda Reed
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Sabine isn’t like anyone else. For as long as she can remember, she’s had two lives. Every twenty-four hours she “shifts,” living each day twice. In one life, Sabine has everything: popular friends, perfect grades, expensive clothes, and the guy everyone wants. In the other, Sabine’s family struggles financially, and her friends are considered rebels. But then she meets Ethan. He’s gorgeous and challenging, and he makes her feel like she’s never felt before.

All Sabine really wants is the chance to live only one life. But when this finally becomes possible, is she willing to risk everything – including losing the one person who might actually believe her – to make it happen?

CW: self harm, drug use, overdose, physical abuse

Note: This review contains minor spoilers

This is a reread of a book I first read in 2014 and I’m surprised that I’ve gone from a 5 star rating to a 2 star review. I think at the time I was amazed at how Shirvington created this world. Her creativeness of how Sabine shifted between worlds, how the rules were changing, what it meant for her life and her decisions caught me more than the problems I can obviously see now.

I did this as an audio second time round and to be honest it was hard to get through it. I had it on the fastest speed I could still understand and I was tired of this story fairly early. Once you see the problems it is hard to see past them.

I feel like having lived for essentially 36 years instead of her single 18 she should be more mature, smarter, and sensible than she is. Sabine has managed her two families and lives well enough — she can live two lives and not get them mixed up, has never forgotten which world she was in, but having lived twice as long as anyone else she is still acting foolishly.

No wonder she is sent to an institution because she’s clearly gone to the extreme self-harm approach instead of doing normal less extreme tests. The blasé attitude she has towards it as well is concerning. She can’t see anything wrong with it, she doesn’t think it’s a big deal and in a YA book especially, to show it as “no big deal” is incredibly troubling.

The abuse of power by Ethan when he was acting as her “nurse” while she was in the hospital crosses a lot of boundaries and whether Sabine wants him or not is no issue, but Ethan crosses a line, whether it’s because he believes her story and knows she isn’t mentally unstable is beside the point. I’m sure somewhere in there there’s an ethical issue as well, and a breach of privacy but I’m not sure on that one. It’s a vague set up Shirvington has going on.

It isn’t a bad concept to be fair, as I say, I did give it five stars the first time around. The ideas are interesting, I liked the fact we have no explanation of why and really the mystery isn’t the point of the story. It is what it is and we follow the change in Sabine’s life as suddenly the rules have changed.

As you read you make your own judgements about which life Sabine should live in and which one would benefit her. Both sides have pros and cons but as the story goes on you can see how the idyllic world may not always be what it seems. On a lighter note, I was annoyed Sabine didn’t use her two lives to her advantage more often. It would have been a great way to test out the consequences and the effects a lot better too.

Where Shirvington fails is that she included these Big Issues and she treats them as if they mean nothing. Not only the detailed description and flippant self-harm, but also abuse. Minor spoiler, but you can’t go from being assaulted to kissing and sleeping with someone else. It just isn’t possible – especially given the examples we’ve seen of how the mentality of the other life comes across. How Sabine is not still reacting from the other life when she shifts is unbelievable when we’ve seen her still reacting from a lot less.

I feel bad having such a shift in rating but I think it’s a good look at how upon initial readings you can get blinded by the overall artwork and not see the cracks that make up that artwork.

You can purchase Between the Lines via the following

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Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

Published: 5th September 2017Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Open Road Media
Pages: 183
Format: ebook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

When Liza Winthrop first lays eyes on Annie Kenyon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she knows there’s something special between them. Soon, their close friendship develops into a deep and intimate romance. Neither imagined that falling in love could be so wonderful, but as Liza and Annie’s newfound sexuality sparks conflict in both their families and at their schools, they discover it will take more than love for their relationship to succeed.

This was a beautiful story to read. I found whenever I stopped reading I longed to come back. Garden tells the story of Liza who is reminiscing about meeting and becoming friends with Annie before a mysterious incident happens that has kept Liza from contacting her.

The writing is easy to fall into and it flows beautifully as you read so you find yourself turning page after page. There was a lovely story being told and I loved the naivety, the passion, and the free spirited nature of these girls. The descriptions are beautiful and honestly it’s incredible how Garden has captured the growing relationship and the act of falling in love between these two girls.

It is of course also a heartbreaking story. For all the beauty and eloquent writing about two teens finding each other and falling in love there is the society around them intent on demonising them if they ever found out. It isn’t only Annie and Liza’s lives under scrutiny either and Garden does a fantastic job of capturing the whole story and all the players in it. Garden balances telling the story while also pointing out society’s failings remarkably well. It says so much but it works within the realm of the story world and never seems out of place or comes across as moralistic or pushy.

Garden tells the story in both past and present tense and the mixing of flashbacks and Liza’s present situation as she writes letters to Annie is incredibly well done. There are well placed clues and mystery around what separated these girls and as readers you’re caught up between watching them fall in love while also wondering what has come between them.

What I found amazing about the whole story is you never felt unsatisfied and it was sometimes surprising to be flung back into the present after having escaped so completely into the past through Liza’s words. I loved this book from early on and it stayed an amazing story throughout. From being a ground-breaking book of its time in the 1980s this story has held up and remains a fabulous and emotional story about first loves and the power and intensity they can have.

You can purchase Annie on My Mind via the following

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If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Published: 3rd May 2016 (print)/4 August 2016 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Flatiron Books /Macmillan Audio
Pages: 280/6 hrs and 59 mins
Narrator: Samia Mounts
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

A new kind of big-hearted novel about being seen for who you really are.

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl is a universal story about feeling different and a love story that everyone will root for.

I read this after Russo’s other book Birthday but while I liked this I think Birthday was a more powerful story. Even though some tough issues are raised here like transphobia, bullying, abuse and violence towards trans people, it was still a relatively minor part of the story. The main plot points are about Amanda at her new school, making new friends, falling in love and trying to reconnect with her estranged father.

There are stereotypes and easy roads taken to make Amanda’s story work which Russo admits to, but that is ok because this isn’t a story about Amanda’s transition (though we do get her full backstory through well placed flashbacks), this is about her life now and how she is navigating a new school, new relationships and her first love.

Russo’s author note at the end talks to her readers, trans and otherwise about how to approach Amanda’s story. She admits she took liberties and made the process seamless for Amanda where it otherwise shouldn’t have been to make the reader accept Amanda more easily, but she acknowledges that many other people don’t have such luxuries in real life. I liked this addition because it would be so easy to dismiss Amanda’s experiences because she had it easy and things were perfectly aligned for her, not to mention for people to assume this experience was universal when it isn’t. In doing so Russo makes the story afterwards the focus and Amanda’s life now rather than before where the main story lies.

Having said that, it isn’t a perfect road for Amanda – I hated that for the entire time I was waiting for the reveal about her past and for the town and/or her friends to turn on her. There are so many trans stories and they shouldn’t all end in revelations resulting in abuse and rejection but while some of Amanda’s story had rule bending, I appreciated Russo not sugar coating the entire experience.

Despite being #OwnVoices it still falls into YA tropes and stereotypes; it is cheesy and sappy at times, but if you’re after a sweet romance with the small town aesthetic that so many US YA books have then this is right up your alley.

You can purchase If I Was Your Girl via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

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Birthday by Meredith Russo

Published: 31st May 2019Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Usborne Publishing Ltd
Pages: 300
Format: Paperback
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★   ★ – 5 Stars

Meet Eric and Morgan.

Born on the same day, at the same time, in the same place. They’ve always shared this one day together, but as they grow up they begin to grow apart.

Everyone expects Eric to get a football scholarship, but no one knows he’s having second thoughts.
Former quarterback Morgan feels utterly alone, as she wrestles with the difficult choice to live as her true self.

Both of them are struggling to be the person they know they are. Who better to help than your best friend?

Told on one day every year, over six years, this is a story about how change pulls people apart… and how love brings them back together.

This book. Oh my gosh, this book. Birthday is an absolutely beautiful story that in part broke my heart and moved my soul.

I am not going to lie, it was heart wrenching and painful to read at times but Russo does a superb job getting you inside the minds of Eric and Morgan, especially Morgan. We feel their pain and anguish and the discovery of self when not a lot was being said and anything LGBTQIA was a punchline or a flippant insult. The same is said for the sexism because there is plenty of that as well. It’s full of the harm of toxic masculinity and the pressure and heartbreak boys are put through in order to live up to what they are “supposed to be”. It was incredibly sad, even in fiction, to read about how these characters were told off for saying they loved each other and weren’t allowed to cry.

Russo captures the derision of a town obsessed with football coupled with the reality that it is the only way out of a place that is dying. The dead end existence of their small town is well explained and the catch-22 of hating football but knowing it’s the only opportunity you’ll have to get into a good university and escape was a refreshing approach to other US novels where football is simply the town obsession for no reason (I mean it is a bit of that too). At least Russo makes it evident there is no real escape otherwise and the way this plays into both character’s choices and mentality is amazing.

Structurally I love how this story is laid out. With one day each year we see the lives of Morgan and Eric, their alternate views on same experiences and different lives as they start to grow up. Every year that passed for Morgan made me hurt, but every year that passed I saw how much Eric was still a loyal friend. Even with this one day we still discover how the rest of the year has been, it never felt like we were missing information of chunks of time. It was incredible how through one day over many years we get to see the whole lives of these characters and see their lives unfold.

I cannot praise this story enough. It is full of pain and sorrow, the confusion of being a teenager and the failure of the adults, but it is also about the power of friendship – especially friendship struggling under the damaging rules of society, bigotry, and ‘being normal’. There are many content warnings obviously such as parental death, self harm, homophobia, depression and bullying, but there are also moments of pure joy and the love, exploration and value of true friendship.

It’s a brilliant book because being inside Morgan and Eric’s head makes you angry and sad, and this isn’t even the distant past – there’s no exact year stated but with references to VHS video cameras, YouTube, and getting Netflix in the mail it’s not that long ago. It’s relatively recent in the scheme of everything and the story does an amazing job in showing how damaging this whole mentality can be while also showing there is always hope and there will always be people who love you and surprise you. I loved this book even though it made me hurt and I think even though it covers some tough subjects it’s an important story to tell and being an #OwnVoices story I think there is even more power and importance in these words.

You can purchase Birthday via the following

QBD | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

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Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

Published: 26th  June 2018
Publisher:
Simon and Schuster
Pages: 372
Format: Paperback
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

After a shout-out from one of the Internet’s superstar vloggers, Natasha “Tash” Zelenka suddenly finds herself and her obscure, amateur web series, Unhappy Families, thrust in the limelight: She’s gone viral. Her show is a modern adaption of Anna Karenina–written by Tash’s literary love Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy. Tash is a fan of the 40,000 new subscribers, their gushing tweets, and flashy Tumblr gifs. Not so much the pressure to deliver the best web series ever. And when Unhappy Families is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, Tash’s cyber-flirtation with a fellow award nominee suddenly has the potential to become something IRL–if she can figure out how to tell said crush that she’s romantic asexual. Tash wants to enjoy her newfound fame, but will she lose her friends in her rise to the top? What would Tolstoy do?

I bought this book because of the high praise of asexuality rep and I’m glad I did because it is a great book. Alice Oseman has set a high standard with Loveless but what I liked about this was that is showed not all LGBTQIA books have to be the same. Some are about coming out, some are about realising your identity, some are about living your life and your gender and sexuality has nothing to do with any of it but is still represented. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a little bit of all three.

There’s diversity without it being a focal point, Tash’s family is split between Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Chrisian, as well as a celebration of different cultures. I love how things are a non-issue so the things that are an issue become the focus. The divide in the family between food preference and faith is easily managed and has become a routine practice in the family. The celebration of family is a huge factor which highlights how close knit and important family is to Tash and I loved seeing it discussed and expressed so beautifully, both through absence, distance and change.

The story explores friendship and family dynamics really well and the complexities of friendships as you grow up. Knowing someone their whole life doesn’t mean you know everything about them and people’s own assumptions can cause tensions and Ormsbee shows this throughout.

Ormsbee gives us a strong family bond but also shows that they’re not perfect and you never know what’s going on inside people’s heads. The imperfect sisterly relationship shows that there’s no rule that sisters have to get along and I loved how Tash acknowledges that being close in age doesn’t mean that sisters will be best friends.

To her credit, Ormsbee blends all of these complicated feelings and topics together well. A lot of themes are touched on throughout but they sit comfortably side by side and mix together well that it never feels like too much is happening.

I loved the exploration of YouTube and making a web series. I have watched some fantastic web series over the years and despite having never read Anna Karenina I would love to see how Tash’s web series was done. I liked Tash’s complexity as a character, her love of Tolstoy, her ambitions as a film maker, but also her side vlog about reading and tea shows how invested in the online and book community she is.

The built up to the awards was done so well and we see Tash fall deep down the rabbit hole of internet fame and juggling fans and subscribers and being a team player. I also loved the ending because Tash’s growth and reflections are important and Ormsbee could have ended it so many ways but I loved the route she took.

I bought this for the asexuality rep but I think I ended up loving it for everything else. The story flows easily and you keep turning the page, the story pulling you along. Even when I picked it up with the intent of only reading a few pages I found myself drawn back in to this story of Tash and her web series and these characters and couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.

You can purchase Tash Hearts Tolstoy via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Angus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust

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